13.2.17

IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR: THE LIFE & SOUL OF WILSON PICKETT by Tony Fletcher



Abuse runs in the family, or so they say. Those ill-treated as children go on to ill-treat as adults and it’s near impossible to break the cycle, all of which means it wasn’t easy being Wilson Pickett. It also makes the job of his biographer that much more taxing, especially if the family are involved, so getting the balance right – the magnificent music against the disagreeable nature of its creator – becomes a delicate responsibility, one not easily resolved. Tony Fletcher, however, has a proven record at dealing with this kind of dilemma. Dear Boy, his masterly biography of Keith Moon, spared few blushes when it came to writing about the Who drummer’s unpleasant side, so he isn’t afraid to tackle Pickett’s character defects either, with the result that In The Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett is an assured and illuminating book on the great soul singer, perhaps the best of them all in an era when great soul records from labels like Atlantic and Stax arrived with the dependability of Al Jackson’s snare drum.
Most music writers confine themselves to a genre in which they specialise but Fletcher recognises no such boundaries. He opened his account with indie (Echo & The Bunneyman and R.E.M.), slipped back into the mythical golden age (Moon), moved on to punk (The Clash) and even disco (a novel, Hedonism). Then he wrote a history of musical New York and an autobiographical memoir before reverting to type with The Smiths. I must therefore declare an interest: at Omnibus Press I was responsible for publishing the first five of these books and acquiring the UK rights to the sixth, and in the course of all this developed a professional relationship and close friendship with the author. So it follows that I am sympathetic towards his work; then again, in the unlikely event that he’d written a stinker, I’d have said so. 
That said, soul and black music generally isn’t an area where Fletcher has previously shown an interest, at least not in the books he writes. However, I happen to know that he’s the proud owner of a Hammond organ, the keyboard that Booker T used to supply those shimmering chords on Otis Redding’s records, as was his late friend and Face Ian McLagan, Small or otherwise, another soulman to his bones. So I guess it was only a matter of time before Fletcher flexed his marathon-toned muscles in this genre.
As he demonstrated in his history of New York’s musical past, Fletcher likes to dip into the history of America too, and in the opening chapters of In The Midnight Hour we learn about Pickett’s breadline childhood in central Alabama, where families are big and dinner portions small, and about the legacy of slavery that mutated into institutional racism buoyed up by the state legislature and redneck cops. Pickett, a name handed down from a slave owner, was one of 11 children and like the rest of them was expected to work in the cotton fields for a pittance. Fat chance. Wilson was a man of talent and ambition with a chip on his shoulder the size of a baked potato, so woe betide anyone who stands in his way. Then again, it might have been the ‘whuppins’ he received from his ma that drove him on. As Fletcher points outs these were administered regularly for minor infringements, not just as punishment but as a warning not to get uppity with white folks. To say the wrong thing to a white woman, Ma Picket knew, could result in retribution much worse than a sore backside.

May 5, 1966: Wilson Pickett on stage with Jimi Hendrix
at an Atlantic Records party is New York.

Like his hero Sam Cooke, Pickett learned to sing in church and, though untroubled by the jump to secular, ‘Lord have mercy’ would litter his lyrics to the last. From Alabama he moves north, to Detroit where he is recruited into The Falcons (alongside Eddie Floyd), and thence to recording in his own right, often with Bobby Womack whose presence is crucial to this story. Fletcher is especially good at tracing Pickett’s path through the murky waters of the sixties music industry wherein producers, managers and agents are all out for what they can get and to hell with morals or ethics. Everyone knew that his lifetime manager, Jimmy Evans, was mafia. “They do no nonsense management,” Pickett’s brother Maxwell tells Fletcher. “When something needs taking care of, they just take care of it.”
On the road music was a cash industry where being handy with a gun was useful, and Pickett didn’t trust banks. He was wary of record companies too and soon cottoned on to the benefits of music publishing. He wasn’t called Wicked Pickett for nothing and it’s a credit to his ‘meanness’ – in Southern black speak read ‘unyielding’ – that he ends up with a nice house, a Rolls-Royce and the wherewithal to move his mother away from rural Alabama and buy her a home of her own, in cash from the wads of bills he stored in his wardrobe.
All of which makes for a lively and entertaining read. In the acknowledgements Fetcher lists no fewer than 67 interviewees, family members, romantic partners, fellow singers and musical accomplices, be they producers or studio hands, or members of bands that backed him on the road, of which there are dozens. In this respect the attention to detail is top-notch, most of them happy to recall the ways in which Pickett’s records were made and his bravura showmanship. All offer evidence that Pickett was a hard taskmaster but a virtuoso singer blessed not only with an extraordinary vocal talent but a musical brain that could weed out any tiny flaws in a track. So can Fletcher, who examines Pickett’s work in an almost scholarly fashion: ‘Every chord required of the song is announced in the opening two bars and one beat,’ he writes of ‘In The Midnight Hour’, Pickett’s masterpiece, ‘a descending pattern that, like a guitar beginner’s tutorial, follows the dotted marks of the fret-board from a high D major to an open E major…. Trumpets blaze those initial descending chords, on the last of which one of them breaks off to play a root note an octave higher, emphasizing the incoming E major.’ That’s but a sample – Fletcher devotes an entire page to his analysis of the song – and his assessments of other Pickett classics – ‘634-5789’, ‘Land Of 1,000 Dances’ and ‘Mustang Sally’ among them – are equally incisive. I particularly enjoyed the passage about the recording of ‘Hey Jude’, recorded in one take with Duane Allman on guitar, ‘the two locked into a musical communication that took on a life of its own’.
Pickett’s unpleasant side is never far away, however. He is perpetually violent towards the women in his life, perhaps a legacy of his upbringing but still inexcusable, unnecessarily aggressive when he drinks too much and more or less addicted to cocaine, which serves only to exacerbate his temper and his tantrums; the cliché ‘his own worst enemy’ is a common refrain. The eighties and nineties weren’t particularly kind to Pickett or any of his fellow soul men and when his career takes a dive after leaving Atlantic for RCA, there to succumb to the lure of inappropriate disco music, and thence to recording limbo, the wheels really start to come off. He winds up in jail, twice, on a variety of charges – assault, driving under the influence, firearms, drugs. “His life was chaotic,” producer Robert Margouleff tells Fletcher. “He was an alcoholic… not in control. That’s the reason he didn’t make records for years.” Other witnesses say much the same thing but almost all make the point that throughout it all he maintained his musical standards. “[Despite it all] he never really sang badly, and he never really sang out of tune,” adds Margouleff.
Pickett’s strong work ethic prevents him from going broke, and although salvation of sorts was offered by his impressive 1999 album It’s Harder Now, Pickett was unwilling to promote it, preferring instead to rely on the steady income accrued from cabaret-style shows staged to exploit his ‘legendary’ status, many of them in casinos. Sooner or later, though, even this proves too much and, his body devastated by drink, he finally comes off the road. In the end he collapses at home, alone, to be found three days later, only to die shortly afterwards in hospital, aged 64, from a heart attack brought on by a raft of health problems. There’s an unseemly squabble over his assets but Fletcher ends his book on a high, recounting how the pastor at his funeral service, a ‘Land Of 1000 Dances’ devotee, ‘had the whole church chanting a joyous last hurrah: Na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na’, and how a week later Pickett was honoured at the Grammys in Los Angeles. “This is for the Wicked Pickett,” roared Bruce Springsteen as an all-star band broke out into a glorious ‘In The Midnight Hour’. ‘He was doing so not just on behalf of the musicians on stage, but on behalf of every soul fan who had ever been touched by one of the greatest voices and, yes, one of the most volatile personalities of the last fifty years,’ concludes Fletcher.
One of the greatest songs too, he might have added.

10.2.17

REVOLUTION? RECORDS & REBELS 1966-1970 - The Victoria & Albert Museum.



If they don’t already know it, Who fans will be delighted to learn that their heroes are well represented in Revolution? Records & Rebels 1966-1970, an exhibition at the V&A Museum that opened in September and is showing until February 26. The only act with a higher profile is The Beatles, the Stones and Pink Floyd having largely opted out, probably because they had their own exhibitions running around the same time this opened.      
I’d been meaning to check this out for a while and it wasn’t until earlier this week, when I had three hours to spare in the middle of an afternoon, that I headed over to South Ken, paid my £15 (£1 off for OAPs!), and joined a queue of folk whose ages ranged from teens to older than myself. I also opted to wear the headset as I walked round, and was pleasantly surprised that the opening track was ‘Magic Bus’ from Leeds. Much more Who would follow.
In many ways the exhibits are similar in approach to those at the hugely successful David Bowie Is exhibition a few years ago: lots of LP covers, clothing, handwritten lyrics, books, magazines, posters, musical instruments and miscellaneous memorabilia. In fact there are hundreds of LP covers to be seen as you wander from room to room, all of them evidently on loan from the collection of John Peel whose taste, as is well known, was beyond reproach. Peelie, you’ll be pleased to learn, was a methodical man and almost all his LP covers have a small handwritten four or five-digit number on a small label in the top left hand corner, no doubt signifying which shelf they belong on. In the days when I had a lot of vinyl, albeit a fraction of Peelie’s collection of course, mine had a letter in the same place, A for Abba, B for Beatles, C for Clapton etc. Peelie’s method was far superior.
But I digress. The most valuable artefacts in this exhibition are no doubt the handwritten Beatle lyrics on loan from The British Library, among them ‘Help’ by John and ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ by Paul, and clothing worn by the Fabs including one of John’s early on-stage dark suits, John and George’s Sgt Pepper outfits and a couple of lovely embroidered velvet jackets worn by George and Ringo. There’s also Yoko’s white step-ladder upon which John climbed to peer through a magnifying glass at the word ‘Yes’ on the ceiling of the Indica Gallery, thus triggering the romance of the decade and, some would have you believe, the slow and painful break up of the group he founded.

It was twenty years ago today..

Regardless of the carping of history academics, it is right and proper that The Beatles should dominate the exhibition in this way, or at least the musical side of it, but there’s much more to it than music, to which I shall return later. In the first room we have a wall dedicated to the Profumo Affair, the sex scandal that in 1964 helped bring down Harold Macmillan’s complacent Tory government, and then it’s on to Carnaby Street, photography (Bailey & Peers) and Blow Up, sex (gay issues and the pill), feminism, drugs, Stones bust, dissent, the Oz trial, black power, anti-Vietnam War demos, the King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, early computers, space travel and probably more besides because there’s an awful lot to take in and as it was fairly crowded I wasn’t able to see everything or, indeed, spend as much time there as I would have liked. Visitors are advised to allot a minimum of two hours, preferably three if they want to absorb the lot.
There are a few eye-openers, the most profound for me the caption for a simple Barclaycard in a glass case which informs that until 1973 women weren’t permitted to have them ‘in their own right’. And all the while as I wandered around appropriate rock music (including a bit more Who) was playing in my headset, intercut from time to time with spoken words, changing automatically from room to room and a bit of a jumble really. By about half way round I took it off to concentrate better. I’d heard it all before anyway.
In some respects the design of the exhibition as it progresses mirrors the changing times, though I’m not certain this was deliberate. The earlier rooms are fun, brightly lit and colourful, the later rooms (with one exception) less so, dour and gloomy. As I remember it (and I know that if you remember it, you’re not supposed to have been there), the middle of the decade was, indeed, fun, mind-expanding, awash with possibility, all you needed was love and the hope that this might bring about permanent change. Then it turned sour, the dream was over, as John said, and the blue meanies, horrified that their power was diminishing, reasserted control, so away went the fun. ‘Four dead in Ohio,’ sang CSN&Y and the room devoted to this aspect of the sixties is grim and foreboding, as it should be, more stridently affecting than any other room in the exhibition and a bit of a comedown after Mary Quant’s technicoloured mini-dresses. 
The exception is the penultimate room, the largest of the lot, on which extracts from the Woodstock film are beamed on to a huge triptych wall beneath which sits Keith Moon’s double-bass drum ‘Pictures Of Lily’ kit, some of it anyway, to the right of which is a busted Gibson, presumably Pete’s, and Roger’s suede coat with the tassels that he wore on stage in those days. Headset back on, I watched and listened to the extracts: Country Joe, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane and Sly Stone before The Who’s extended ‘My Generation’, after which Pete disdainfully lobs his guitar into the crowd. It ends, as it should, with Jimi playing ‘Star Spangled Banner’. All around me visitors sat on cushions on the floor to watch, creating that homely hippie vibe that I remember from the first Virgin record shop at the eastern end of Oxford Street. Then it was on to the final exhibit in the final room: John singing ‘Imagine’, a bit of a Pollyanna cliché really. 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall' would have been more my choice.

Roger's outfit, centre

So I came away with the thought that the only permanent memorial of the swinging decade really is the music, unless you count credit cards being available to both sexes. Successive governments of a right-wing bent have done their best to negate the social progress that sixties idealists sought to establish, some gains here, some losses there as our topsy-turvy world stumbles through the second decade of the 21st Century in the sinister shadow of Trump.
On the way out there was a book to sign with a space for comments. “Born 1947. We tried,” I wrote after my name.

5.2.17

ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME INDUCTION CEREMONY, 2017



Those of you who have followed my posts about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will be pleased to learn that as a voter I have, as ever, been invited to the Induction Dinner at the Barclays Center in New York on April 2, 2017. The 2017 Inductees are Joan Baez, ELO, Journey, Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur and Yes, only one of whom – Yes – I voted for. Chic have been ignored again, though Nile Rodgers is to be given a separate Award For Musical Excellence, and Kraftwerk, too, have been given the thumbs down, probably because no one is quite sure who Kraftwerk is these days, apart from Ralf Hutter who runs the franchise and recruits ‘touring members’ for shows, and who probably isn’t on the other three members of the ‘classic’ line-up’s Christmas Card lists.
Anyway, nice to see Yes making it at last, and what a shame that Chris Squire – the only member of this multi-personnel ensemble to have played with every edition of the group – won’t be on the podium. Of the rest, ELO, Journey and Pearl Jam were never really my cup of tea, I’m not big on rap and I always thought Joan was a folk singer. Lovely voice, mind.
However, I shall not be attending the event. This is not a protest against my votes being ignored (and again I shouted loudly but in vain for Richard Thompson) but because the cheapest ticket is $3,000, the most expensive (Chairman’s Sponsor) $100,000 which gets you and nine friends into the rehearsal, a pre-event dinner with inductees and a few more bells and whistles.
Finally, I’m probably not alone in thinking that as the years go by the calibre of names put forward for induction becomes less and less distinguished. Unlike awards that are presented on the strength of records released during the previous 12 months (of which there are far too many, but that’s a separate issue), entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is judged on a career’s worth of work that is deemed to have sufficient merit to warrant it. Six seems to be the minimum number of nominees inducted each year (and sometimes it’s more), so it is logical that the benchmark will gradually decline. Since artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record, it is a terrifying thought to realise that in four years time The Spice Girls will become eligible.


1.2.17

I’M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN by Sylvie Simmons




Odd how four words can make you well up. ‘The applause was deafening,’ writes Sylvie Simmons at the start of chapter 18 of I’m Your Man, her acclaimed biography of Leonard Cohen that I have only just got around to reading. It follows a chapter that describes in horrific detail how Cohen was fleeced of over $10 million by a deceitful manager and another in which, in order to shore up his crumbling finances, he is obliged after five years away from the spotlight to tour again, albeit very reluctantly and only after months of preparation in which he seriously believes no one cares any more. So, when after all this we read that at the first show on the tour, in the Canadian backwater of Fredericton, ‘the applause was deafening’, it becomes an affirmation that right will win out in the end and that this great artist, writer, poet, musician, songwriter and singer was as missed in his absence as he is adored in his presence.
The absence occurred because Cohen opted to spend his time in a Californian monastic retreat, dressing in monks’ robes, eating frugally, rising at 4am to observe ritual chanting in the lotus position and generally devoting his life to acquiring divine knowledge at the feet of his spiritual master Jushu Sasaki Roshi, a Zen master of the Rinzai school of Buddhism – ‘hardcore’, as Simmons puts it. This might seem unusual for someone who through no fault of his own was often lazily categorised as a ‘rock star’ but then again, as this book confirms, Cohen was much more besides. Also, in view of his much reported fondness for beautiful women – and them for him – it comes as something of a relief to discover that celibacy was not part of the pact, and that there occurred the odd tryst with a friendly nun in the front seat of his jeep parked nearby.
Such levity notwithstanding, this is a serious book, beautifully written, the definitive work on Cohen, and for the writing of it Cohen gave Simmons his full support and asked for nothing in return, not even to read her manuscript. This also explains why her research was facilitated by interviews with many musicians and producers who had worked with Cohen, friends and fellow poets going back to his home town of Montreal, not to mention the many women in Cohen’s life, all of whom seem to adore him still and look back warmly on their relationships with him as immensely valuable experiences.
Completed in 2012 and not yet updated to take into account Cohen’s death last year, I’m Your Man makes clear that music was by no means Cohen’s first career choice. Prior to signing with Columbia in 1967, he was through his novels and poetry already a distinguished man of letters in his native Canada, and by this time he’d reached the age of 33, positively ancient by recording industry standards. Also, despite an appetite for recreational drugs and good wine, he wasn’t the sort to fit into the déclassé world of rock. He was dapper, erudite, modest, a man of culture who invariably dressed in dark suits, a legacy from his family’s prosperous clothing business. (‘Darling,’ he tells Simmons, ‘I was born in a suit.’) It is not therefore until we reach page 161 (out of 499, excluding back matter) that we find Cohen in the recording studio attempting to record ‘Suzanne’, his most famous song until ‘Hallelujah’ slaughtered all before it rather late in the day.
By this time Simmons has painted a picture of Cohen as assuredly his own man insofar as life decisions are concerned. He is a seeker, a voracious reader, curious about religions, restless, often on the move – the descriptions of life on Hydra are as delightful as the Aegean island itself, as are passages about less well known visits to Mumbai – rarely looking back, unconcerned with material possessions or accumulating wealth, though the success of his music would eventually make him rich. Also, he’s a reluctant performer, largely due to stage fright, but when the occasion arises – as at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival – he rises to it, wondrously. At two in the morning, high but serene on Mandrax, Cohen asks the huge but restless crowd to light matches – perhaps the very first manifestation of this now ubiquitous concert practice – which they did. ‘It was magical,’ producer Bob Johnson, watching from the side of the stage, tells Simmons. ‘From the first moment to the last. I’ve never seen anything like it. He was just remarkable.’
Cohen was never prolific. His record label grew used to long waits between albums, though in the USA Columbia seemed not to care because – extraordinarily – it wasn’t until very late in his career that American audiences wised up to him. Latterly, of course, he was welcomed everywhere, especially in Europe where he’d always enjoyed massive admiration. The ‘Awards And Honours’ listing in the index extends to 28 lines in the tiniest type, the longest I’ve ever seen in a music biog. The concerts he performed following the management swindle were amongst the most over subscribed ever, everywhere, again and again, and in London he was able to fill the O2, not that he enjoyed it much. Intimacy was Cohen’s game, but this wonderful lap of honour makes the prefect climax to Simmons’ book, a fairy-tale ending she delights in telling.
This book has already been praised to the hilt by numerous reviewers, and deservedly so, and I came to it late. As Cohen’s most authoritative biographer Sylvie Simmons found herself called upon last year to talk endlessly and with a heavy heart about a man whose death she would have mourned more sorrowfully than most. She discovered him in 1968 as a teenager on the cut-price sampler The Rock Machine Turns You On, where Cohen’s ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ shared vinyl space with 14 other Columbia acts, of which only Bob Dylan and Paul Simon can be said to rival him. For a biographer, that’s the kind of credential that makes for a great read and Simmons doesn’t disappoint.


23.1.17

PETE ‘OVEREND’ WATTS




RIP Pete Watts, bass player in Mott The Hoople, whom I knew quite well back in my Melody Maker days, at least until the group fragmented after the departure of Ian Hunter. Overend, as he called himself for some inexplicable reason, was always friendly, down to earth, a great big tall geyser (especially in those ludicrous platform boots that he wore on stage) who sometimes died his hair silver and played a weird-shaped bass that had been specially designed for him. Like the rest of them, he was an honest toiler at the coalface of rock, modest and unassuming, with a droll sense of humour drawn from the knowledge that his band was never likely to top the Premier League but, with the wind in their sails, could rock up a storm on a good night.
          Mott taught me a lesson, albeit unintentionally. When I joined MM in 1970 I had naively assumed that any act worthy of coverage in the paper, ie one that had released an album or two and could sell out concerts, would be living the life of Riley, comfortably off and comfortably housed. Then I went to interview them at their communal flat in Earls Court where all bar Hunter (who lived in Putney with his American wife Trudy) lived. Well, it was a pigsty, truly awful, and it was a shock to realise that far from living the life of Riley the members of Mott The Hoople were probably worse off than me in terms of income and lifestyle. They were lovely guys but as Ian Hunter’s great book Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star later confirmed, life in a rock band was only really comfortable for those at the top of the tree. The rest, as that visit to the flat in Earls Court confirmed, had a tough time of it, even if they did get their mugs in MM.
          I wrote about MtH quite a bit in the early seventies but can’t seem to find any of my pieces on Rock’s Back Pages when I looked this morning. All I could find was a concert review from September 19, 1970 when Mott supported Free at Croydon’s Fairfield Hall, a show that sticks in my mind because Hunter encouraged a stage invasion that got slightly out of hand.
I wrote more about Free than Mott but here it is anyway: “Fairfield Hall, Croydon, has seen some amazing scenes since it became South London's home of rock, but I doubt whether the old faithfuls at the hall have ever seen anything like the excitement that Mott The Hoople conjured up on Sunday.
“With little more than an encouraging beckon from Ian Hunter, Mott's pianist and singer, over 100 excited fans leaped up on to the stage to dance along with the group during their finale, a medley of rock and roll songs from the fifties.
“Free had a difficult task in following such a performance, but they coped with the hysteria with a selection of numbers that have brought them to the forefront this year. They opened with ‘Riding On A Pony’ which could be their next single and included two songs from their forthcoming fourth album, ‘Be My Friend’ and ‘The Stealer’.
“For an encore they bounced through ‘All Right Now’ and – after some hesitation – came back for a second encore doing ‘The Hunter’.
“There can be few groups around where the bass lines play such an integral part in the overall sound. Little Andy Fraser moves around the stage like a toy that won't fall over, always getting the most from his four strings.
“The performance was recorded live by Island and – quality permitting – should be released on an album before Christmas. It will sell like hot cakes.”


15.1.17

DAVID BOWIE: The Golden Years, and Books Galore.




The loss of David Bowie was always likely to inspire a slew of books about him that would not otherwise have been written. Amongst them were Paul Morley’s The Age Of Bowie which I ignored after my friend Johnny Rogan dismissed it as ‘a dog’s dinner’ in his review in The Irish Times* and Lesley-Ann Jones' rather melodramatic Hero: David Bowie which began and ended very well but I felt was let down by certain omissions and the author’s tendency to inform readers about things before they’d happened, thus interrupting the flow (not to mention the spurious claim that Bowie’s mother had worked in the sex trade, an allegation that ensured the book got plenty of press, albeit of the wrong kind). Both books clearly suffered through being written hastily to meet unreasonable deadlines.
For my money the two best text-led biographies of Bowie remain David Buckley’s lengthy Strange Fascination, an updated and revised edition of which has occupied the author for much of this year, and Paul Trynka’s more compact but less affectionate Starman.
I ought to have published Strange Fascination myself and would have done so had not Virgin Books outbid Omnibus Press. Additionally, there was an issue with regard to David Bowie’s own feelings towards the book. At the time the book was being pitched, Music Sales, Omnibus’ parent company, were in talks with Bowie’s management about song publishing matters and it was felt that it might rock the boat if Omnibus Press were to publish David Buckley’s ‘unauthorised’ book. In the event this was probably erring on the side of caution as Buckley’s 1996 (Omnibus) book on Bowie, The Complete Guide to the Music of…, was favourably received by the great man, so much so that he chose to privately publish his own edition as a promotional tool for his Earthling album in 1997.
As it was, the best Bowie book that Omnibus published during my time as editor was probably Bowiestyle, by Mark Paytress, a large format, heavily illustrated book that eschewed the biographical approach in favour of examining Bowie’s influences and the way he has influenced others. Published in 2000, it remains in print, superseding to an extent the David Bowie Black Book, first published in 1981 and also still in print. Originally written by Barry Miles, my predecessor as Editor at Omnibus Press, I updated it twice which explains my co-author credit. It was among the first illustrated ‘coffee table’ style books on Bowie, a huge seller at the time in a market that in 1981 had yet to become saturated.
There were other Omnibus Press Bowie books in the meantime, among them early manager Kenneth Pitt’s fascinating Pitt Report, and Bowiestyle and the Black Book have now been joined by a third coffee-table book from Omnibus entitled David Bowie: The Golden Years by Roger Griffin, an even more sumptuous volume that the publishers believe reflects the attention to presentation that was so important to its subject. Early Amazon reviews indicate it is being appreciated by fans for its attention to detail, lavish photography and superior design.
I should point out that this book was commissioned long before Bowie left us. I had a hand in it, of course, and can reveal that its production was seriously compromised by David’s passing. Many of the photographers whose pictures were to have been included either withdrew their permission to use them or decided to triple the fees they would otherwise have charged. It was Omnibus’ original intention to publish this book in time for Christmas 2015, but when this didn’t happen – books like this, which are nowadays printed in the Far East, invariably encounter delays – we scheduled it for the spring of 2016. Then came the sad news, and a rethink. The result is a ‘spare no expense’ attempt at producing the ultimate Bowie memento.
The Golden Years, of course, were the seventies, and Griffin’s book is a comprehensive and scrupulously precise chronology of David’s moves and grooves between January 4, 1970 (a gig at the Beckenham Arts Lab) and December 15, 1980 (the release of a K-Tel Best Of Bowie compilation). In between are details of every record released, every concert performed, every TV and radio appearance, every recording session, the films, the interviews, the collaborations, the off-stage shenanigans, the travel, the contretemps, and the socialising, just about everything that David Bowie did in those 3,652 days, together with hundreds of photographs, many reproduced to full bleed to take advantage of the large format. It is 450 pages of day-to-day diary entries, the whole package enhanced with gold leaf blocking, a hardback that weighs over 6lbs, so if you buy several take them home separately.
        It is my belief that time and distance add gravity and that it will be a long time before the definitive David Bowie biography is written. It is an undertaking that will take years of scrupulous research, two hundred or more new interviews with those once close to Bowie, and a slow and methodical approach to the project. I hope that out there is a biographer who is to David Bowie what Mark Lewisohn is to The Beatles, perhaps a literary scholar and Bowie fan who was maybe too young to have been watching Top Of The Pops on July 5, 1972, but who understands what that moment meant and can bring to his or her book the same mix of profundity and sparkle that we recognised in Ziggy. I give it five years.

12.1.17

TIGHT BUT LOOSE – Portrait of the Singer as a Young Man




The evolution of Robert Plant from prancing stallion to grizzled old rock warrior is something to behold. The photograph of Led Zeppelin’s front man on the latest issue of Dave Lewis’ Tight But Loose fanzine brings back memories of the youthful Plant as he was in 1969, a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday, hungry, passionate, perhaps a bit shell-shocked that so much had happened in so short a time and, above all, relishing in the sheer wonder of having musicians of the calibre of Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham backing him up as he sang. Once he grew a beard, let alone after he shaved it off for the first time, it was never quite the same but in ’69, there was something decidedly feral about him, like a big cat gnawing on the songs he sang. Offstage, however, he was a slightly green middle-class English boy, raised not to drop his (h)aitches, as nice as pie, perhaps a bit unsure of himself, quite unlike the cultured, well-travelled Page, the experienced session-hand Jones and boisterously blue-collar Bonham.       
Most great groups take a year or two to get into their stride but Zeppelin was the Usain Bolt of rock, at full strength straight off the starting block, and the image of Robert on the front of this latest TBL caused me to do a double take. His hair covers his face and he looks like he’s about to fellate the microphone, so for a second or two I didn’t recognise him. Then I looked again and noted that the picture came from the Royal Albert Hall, June 29, less than a year after their first rehearsal, about one year before I first saw the group. They’d had a busy week that week with shows in Newcastle (June 20), Bristol (21), London (24, a BBC recording), Portsmouth (26), London (27, a second BBC recording) and the Bath Festival the night before, so they would have been at Olympic fitness. They actually did two shows at the RAH that day, and two other groups played before them each time, which suggests their set was short, not much longer than an hour, a handful of songs from the first album and a finale that evidently climaxed with Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ for which the supporting groups joined them on stage – havin’ some fun tonight indeed.
But I digress. I was going to write about the contents of the new TBL but became side-tracked by its front cover. Indeed, I ought to have opened this little piece with my thanks to Dave for the fulsome coverage of No Quarter: The Three Lives Of Jimmy Page by Martin Power, a book I had a hand in, which occupies three pages of TBL 42, and I’m happy to say Dave welcomes it warmly.  Dave points out that it is comprehensive (622 pages) but not salacious, a deliberate editorial stance agreed upon by the author and myself when the book was commissioned. You can find plenty of that in Hammer Of The Gods, Richard Cole’s Stairway To Heaven and Barney Hoskyns Trampled Underfoot, not to mention memoirs by the likes of Pamela Des Barres and Nick Kent, so Martin and I agreed he should go easy on the sex and drugs and concentrate on the music, of which there is a great deal, and not just LZ. I have reason to believe that a work in progress by a former NME writer of some distinction will not be quite so discriminating.
Taking pride of place in this issue of TBL is Dave’s take on LZ’s Complete BBC Sessions, for which he wrote liner notes, thus elevating him to the same role that Mark Lewisohn attained with The Beatles on their reissue series and, to a lesser extent, my own participation in Who reissues from the mid-nineties. It is pleasing to note that the time and effort that Dave has put into helping Led Zeppelin maintain their profile 37 years after they called it a day, not to mention the knowledge he’s amassed along the way, has been recognised in this way. As far as I am aware he is the world's only full-time professional Led Zeppelin archivist. Groups, even those as sturdy as Led Zep, need fans like him.
Elsewhere there’s a feature on collecting singles on which JP played without credit, including such disparate names as Val Doonican and Brenda Lee, a low down on the Top 100 most valuable LZ albums, the usual info on bootlegs and the like, news on recent Page, Plant and Jones activities and a report on the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ court case which went the way TBL hoped it would: “Reason prevails,” observes its editor sagely.

6.1.17

BRIAN ENO – REFLECTION, CD review


Alerted by a positive review in last Sunday’s Observer and undeterred by a mediocre one in today’s Guardian, I have been soothing my troubled psyche this week by listening to this latest chapter in Eno’s ambient tales. A 54-minute continuous meditation of unhurried music that sounds suitable for the soundtrack of a movie exploring the wreck of the Titanic, it a fine antidote to the overdose of ‘Frosty The Snowman’ and ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ from which I was suffering until we took down our tree last night.
This is not my first encounter with Eno’s ambient work. Back in the early eighties, freelancing after an early release from the rigours of RCA’s press office, I was contacted by Eno’s record label who commissioned me to write descriptions of about a dozen avant-garde albums and biographies of those who had recorded them, not all by Roxy Music’s original non-musician. Among them, however, were Eno’s Discreet Music, Music For Films and Music For Airports, all in the ambient style and all quite new to me at the time. I warmed to them, just as I had warmed to Eno when he, I and two others had dinner together many years ago in a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. He won’t remember that night but I do, as he’s not the kind of guy you forget in a hurry.
Reflection is playing as I type. It consists of sustained chimes across a fairly narrow band of notes, with a deep foundation making its presence felt and a very occasional unexpected trill, bleep or ping. Placid doesn’t do it justice. Quite simply, it is the slowest music I have ever heard, yet at the same time I wouldn’t describe it as lethargic, as in encouraging laziness. Something is happening amidst the languor, and its contemplative potential is quite profound. I suspect that if I was to indulge in that old habit of mine that involved crumbling dark matter into a roll-up cigarette I would enjoy it more, but I can enjoy it straight all the same. For a few seconds at the beginning I was reminded of the opening bars of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ or even Led Zeppelin’s ‘No Quarter’ but those thoughts soon ebbed away as I became absorbed in the mysterious depths of Eno’s synthesiser.
I believe that those with the correct equipment can download a version that is endless and which can be manipulated by the listener to create their own personal variations, but that’s far too far out for me. I’m content with the basic model, an acquired taste maybe but unlike some I find that the older I get the more I explore.
I should add that the packaging is as beautifully minimal as the music. The cover of the CD’s eight-page black sleeve is bible black but for a shot of the master’s face that is only just discernable; no text inside, a minimum of credits and a wonderfully tasteful design throughout.
        Were I in a position to do so I would advise the President Elect of the United States to give this recording a listen immediately before his next imprudent tweet. A pause for reflection might do him and the rest of us of some good.

31.12.16

HOMEWARD BOUND: THE LIFE OF PAUL SIMON by Peter Ames Carlin


If ever a career in music was pre-ordained it is that of Paul Simon, the ambitious, gifted and ever-so-scrupulous first son of a professional double-bass player and the champion of this book, a biography as diligently researched and carefully considered as any of the songs in Simon’s extensive repertoire. Though clearly an admirer of his music, Peter Ames Carlin nevertheless feels duty bound to cast a less than approving eye on a man whose self-belief – some might call it arrogance – results in him repeatedly turning a deaf ear to well-meant advice, often with unfortunate results, as well as a distressing reluctance to share credits with collaborators. He's also on the depressive side, unfulfilled despite it all, and consequently resorts to psychoanalysis, usually successfully. The result is that Homeward Bound portrays Paul Simon as largely uncongenial, certainly not someone with whom you’d want to relax over a couple of beers, let alone share a catchy riff you’d discovered on your own guitar.
On the plus side, Simon is no fan of the cult of celebrity, generous towards charities and always pays his musicians well, sometimes when they don’t even know it, as was the case with British folkie Martin Carthy who introduced him to, and taught him how to play, ‘Scarborough Fair’, the traditional ballad that opens Parsley Sage Rosemary And Thyme, the third album Simon recorded with singer Art Garfunkel. Simon credited himself as the writer but dutifully sent a proportion of the royalties to Carthy’s music publisher who shamefully failed to pass them on, with the result that in his ignorance Carthy held a grudge against Simon for years until the issue was finally resolved after they shared a stage together in 2000.
This is but one of many interesting instances that Carlin brings to light where Simon appears guilty of minor larceny. Plagiarism is too strong a word, but Simon has a tendency to hear something, or be alerted to something, which after a good deal of chopping and changing, remixing and re-arranging and almost always adding his own lyric, he makes his own. Often this is tangential, as in the case of the musician Heidi Berg who in early 1984 drew Simon’s attention to music from South African townships by famously loaning him a cassette tape she had found entitled Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits No 2. Simon liked what he heard and two and half years later released Graceland, heavily influenced by that cassette and which arguably rescued his career, or at least gave him a new one, but Heidi Berg, without whom, is mentioned only in the very small print and referred to not by name but as ‘a friend’ in Simon’s own sleeve note. She didn't even get the cassette back. 
At the heart of this book is the volatile relationship between Simon and Garfunkel, a running theme of friendship and hostility that Carlin returns to time and again, often with eye-opening revelations about their endless rivalry and petty squabbles. This began in the Tom & Jerry era, that rather odd pre-S&G phase wherein they launched themselves as a precocious doo-wop duo, all smiles, crew cuts and sweaters, a time of innocence you might think but you’d be wrong. To his credit Carlin has researched this period, about which little has been written before, with extraordinary diligence, so much so that I found it one of the strongest parts of his book (vying with the political fallout from Graceland and the slow-burn build up to the Capeman debacle). Accordingly, we learn that Jerry (Paul) went behind Tom’s back, making recordings of his own under various pseudonyms, and that when Art found out he went ballistic. Even now, over 55 years and heaven knows how many millions of records sold later, this subterfuge still rankles. Its nadir was probably reached when they refused to be photographed together for a 1981 hits compilation, thus requiring their record company to hire lookalikes photographed in shaded soft focus as they stroll by gentle waves along a seashore.


Simon & Garfunkel, or is it?

All of this keeps us on tenterhooks as we progress through the sixties, the S&G years. They keep up the pretence well, the best of friends as their renown escalates, amiable quips shared on stage, but the tense undercurrent is always there, exacerbated by Simon’s need for control, Garfunkel keeping him waiting, their physical differences and the overlying sense that their personalities simply don’t gel. Well, John and Paul Beatle didn’t always see eye to eye either and neither do Mick and Keith Rolling Stone, let alone the Everly, Davies and Gallagher brothers, so perhaps we have disparity to thank for some of the finest pop music of the second half of the 20th Century, and I include in that the three greatest S&G albums, Parsley…, Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Long before the break-up of S&G it is clear that Simon wants to make it on his own, and it is also clear that he has always had eclectic tastes, that never ending need to broaden his musical palette. He was researching ‘world’ music long before Graceland; witness ‘El Condor Pasa’ on the Bridge album, ‘Mother And Child Reunion’ on his first solo record and the gospel and Dixieland excursions on his second, … Rhymin’ Simon. He is an avid reader of good books, a confidant of A-list actors, TV directors and film makers, and he repeatedly reaches out to teachers who can offer knowledge of technique, musical theory and literary skills. As a result, the career lows – notably the One Trick Pony movie and Capeman musical – tend to be redeemed by the quality of the songs within, both lyric and melody, which Carlin analyses and critiques with a clear eye for style, detail and procedure. It is to Simon’s credit that when things do go awry for him he has an uncanny ability to back off, lick his wounds and bounce back, even if that does mean a call to his old friend and rival who lives in equal splendour to himself on the other side of New York’s Central Park.
The book is refreshingly direct, focusing almost exclusively on Simon and only very occasionally veering off into matters concerning his rivals, usually Bob Dylan, or politics, and only then when it is pertinent to career choices that the generally apolitical Simon makes. Too many rock biographies resort to this kind of thing as padding but this one doesn’t, and to this end Simon’s personal life is not ignored. We learn of his marriages, and how the first two – to Peggy Harper (the ex-wife of S&G’s manager) and to actor/writer Carrie Fisher – broke up, and his immediate family, a troubled only son from his first marriage, and three later children, two boys and a girl, with third wife Edie Brickell. We learn too about the earlier generations of the Simon lineage, the tailor from Galicia, another Paul, who emigrated to America in 1903, and Louis the bass player, who found it difficult to come to terms with his son’s fame and enormous fortune. He desperately wanted his elder son to become a teacher and it wasn't until this very famous son reached the age of 50 that Louis could finally find the words to tell the multi-millionaire rock star, his boy who drew 750,000 to a concert in Central Park, how proud he was of his achievements.
Finally, I warmed to his book because here and there Carlin drops lyrics from the Simon canon into his text, usually to stress a point yet never tritely or as a cliché. Search and ye shall find. It’s a lovely touch, a sure sign that not only does Peter Ames Carlin know his subject inside out but that he cares about his readership. Those fans that might be deterred by the unflinchingly objective light that Homeward Bound shines on Paul Simon will nonetheless be charmed by the warmth bestowed in this pleasing, slightly whimsical, attention to detail.
Highly recommended.


24.12.16

Happy Christmas...


Happy Christmas and New Year to all visitors to Just Backdated, past present and future. CC